Sunday, February 10, 2008

Random Movie Report #41: Varan the Unbelievable

I love a good monster movie, or for that matter a bad monster movie. Mediocre ones often get a pass as well. I saw the American cut of VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE many years ago at the now-closed Tivoli theater in Westport, where it was a last-minute replacement for a Godzilla film that was suddenly unavailable. I wasn’t hugely impressed, but it was a heavily re-edited American version, and it wasn’t until years later that the original Japanese cut appeared on DVD. It’s honestly a disappointment, a rushed and half-baked kaiju eiga in which Toho tried to recreate the success of GOJIRA and RODAN with much less effort. It has a good monster who deserved a better shot at stardom, and so fans of the genre should give it a look for that reason, but it’s a minor picture.

The appearance of a rare butterfly in a remote area of the Tohoku region (called “the Tibet of Japan”) causes two scientists to head out to the area to look for more speciments, despite the warnings of local villagers who live in fear of the Baradagi, a mysterious demon god. The scientists are crushed in an avalanche by some unseen horror, causing another group of three people to go out after them. They’re the first to see the “god” with their own eyes- Varan, a prehistoric beast that lives in the lake and occasionally pops out to scare the crap out of everyone. Deciding that a giant monster in the middle of Japan is not an ideal situation, even if it does stay within one fairly remote area, the Self Defence Force launches an attack only to find that the creature shrugs off just about anything. Varan flies away from the attack (he has wings like a flying squirrel), and now everyone has to find a way to kill him before he starts laying waste to major cities.

So far, so good, eh? Sadly there were problems. VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE started as a Japan/US coproduction for TV (hence a lower budget than Toho’s previous kaiju efforts)- when the US backers pulled out, the studio tried to rework the material into a theatrical film. You can tell from the first scene that this is a pretty cheap production, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sure, Varan is prevented from ever really tearing a city apart, but he does go to town on some villages (pun not intended, if it even exists) and tears up an airport.

There’s just not a lot to talk about with this film, which is the real problem. The film has no hook; it’s extremely generic, following a rote story structure with pretty much no twists to it. Which wouldn’t be bad either, but even the traditional destruction and battling-the-military sequences are lifeless and insanely repetitive. When you’re a kaiju fan you expect these sequences to go on a bit, it’s part of the fun, but here the action falls completely flat. There a sequence involving depth charges that runs forever. What’s most baffling is that this is directed by none other than Ishiro Honda, who could direct this sort of thing in his sleep. This film also features what must be the earliest instance of Toho repeating FX footage from its own monster movies to save money- it’s not hard to spot one shot where Godzilla is obviously standing in for our title monster. (Even Varan’s roar seems to be an altered version of the big G’s.)

It doesn’t help that the human action doesn’t register at all. I get that there wasn’t much money for the FX sequences, but just how costly would it be to have the people in the movie do something interesting? In GOJIRA we have great gobs of drama over Dr. Serizawa and his Oxygen Destroyer, in RODAN there’s lots of tension in the mines, but here everyone just goes through the motions. The chief scientist at one point pronounces that “Varan will strike where we least expect” despite there being absolutely no reason to declare this, and of course the monster strikes where everyone’s expecting anyway. Even the solution comes up thanks to a character who pops up out of nowhere.

There’s one thing which keeps this film from being outright bad, and that’s Varan himself. The script never develops his origins or abilities much, but the design for the beast is excellent, halfway between dinosaur and demon, with a lot of personality in the face. He walks sometimes on four legs and sometimes on two, which is an interesting variation, and overall you think much more could have been done with the creature. Varan would go on to make a brief appearance in the 1968 classic DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, his role limited due to the fact that the suit was in poor condition, but he hasn’t popped up much since, which is a shame.

The best of the classic kaiju films stand out for their imagination and invention, for the elaborate craftsmanship put to use in bringing to life absurd ideas. There’s a bit of that in the sequence where Varan flies out of the mountains, but the rest is frankly half-assed. Fans of Japanese monster films should probably still see this, but its only real value is as a curiosity, an obscure footnote in Toho’s otherwise proud history of rubber suit rampages. As for Varan himself, he did show up in GODZILLA UNLEASHED for the Wii, so he hasn’t fallen into complete obscurity. Which is good; one hates to see a promising performer out of work.

Story by Ken Kuronuma
Screenplay by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: C

Varan the Unbelievable can be purchased here or by clicking on the image above.

No comments: